Closely divided La Crosse Co. gears up for Walker recall election

Making calls
Volunteer Pam Johnson uses two phones to make campaign calls from the Republican county headquarters in La Crosse Saturday, May 26, 2012. Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett will face off with Gov. Scott Walker in Wisconsin's recall election June 5. Both parties are ramping up their efforts in La Crosse County, which is evenly divided.
Alex Kolyer for MPR

When Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker supporter Oscar Hagen's neighbors started to blanket his block with signs for Democratic challenger Tom Barrett, he decided to do something about it.

"I went down to the local and picked up two signs just to maybe to irritate the neighbors," said Hagen, 85. "My basic values have never changed. I believe in conservative principles and what we've got going on now is going to destroy our country."

Hagen's daughter Diane Kiehl, 57, is a third-grade teacher in Madison who disagrees with her father when it comes to the recall.

"I wish that, Scott Walker, when he was campaigning, would have talked about what his plan was," she said. "He never talked about dismantling unions and taking away collective bargaining."

The Hagen house is divided, like so many in La Crosse County. Both political camps in the southwestern Wisconsin county are ramping up efforts in this final stretch of the campaign.

Wisconsin voters will decide next week whether Republican Gov. Scott Walker will remain in office. Two recent polls show the governor has a slight advantage over Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett, in a race being watched nationally.

Lawn signs
Campaign signs line a sidewalk in a La Crosse neighborhood Saturday, May 26, 2012.
Alex Kolyer for MPR

In 2010, Walker defeated Barrett by just 115 votes in La Crosse County. Barret received 20,639 votes; Walker received 20,754 votes. Yet it's also a county where Democrat President Barack Obama defeated Republican John McCain in 2008 handily — 61 percent to 37.5 percent.

Joe Heim, a political science professor at the University of Wisconsin — La Crosse, said southwestern Wisconsin is a toss up area that could very well decide the recall election.

"This is not a real strong Democrat or Republican area," Heim said. "People will split their votes and go from one side to the other in any given election. We're not a real strong labor union area here. If we were a strong labor union area, I think we'd all know where this area is going."

Heim and many other political scientists say the Wisconsin election will have broad implications for the rest of the country, because it's the first major test of where the public stands on tea party-style budget balancing and union restrictions.

But before that happens, both campaigns must make one final push this week to get voters to the polls. Within the last 12 months, La Crosse County voters have gone to the polls nine times. Heim said that's resulted in some voter fatigue, but he doesn't think it's enough to keep voters from casting their ballots next week.

Democratic county headquarters
A volunteer writes down information at the Democratic county headquarters in La Crosse Saturday, May 26, 2012.
Alex Kolyer for MPR

"For the recall elections last summer, people were coming in and they were angry. Now, they're just determined. In other words, the numbers are going to be higher but the anger has kind of dissipated and now it's just a matter of commitment as to which side is most committed to getting out their vote," Heim said.

And that means a lot of last-minute phone calls for campaign workers and volunteers on both sides of the political spectrum. On one side, there are volunteers like Republican Pam Johnson who's called more than 20,000 voters in support of Walker.

"I've called a lot of people and I'm finding that a lot of the people that are not happy with Gov. Walker will still vote to keep him in office because they don't agree with the recall and the waste of money and stuff like that," Johnson said.

A mile away at the Democratic office, Doug Zuege, a self-described fiscal conservative and social liberal, makes his pitch for Barrett.

"Just trying to, you know, make sure to get out the vote," he said. "Every vote counts."

The idea that every vote counts will be especially true in a place like La Crosse County, where voters are split down the middle and the outcome will rest on how many people make it to the polls.